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Men's Rock Climbing Shoe Buying Guide

By Matt Bento ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Wednesday November 20, 2019
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You've spent a few nights climbing in the gym, and now you're ready to jump in the car for a marathon drive to Yosemite to climb its hallowed walls. But first, you have the unenviable task of selecting the right climbing shoes. Sifting through an endless jumble of masochistic designs with fast car names feels light years away from the walls of your dreams. They say nothing great comes easy, but they never said anything about shoe shopping. Fortunately, we're here to help. Our buying advice article will help you narrow down the selection so you can spend less time mailing bad shoes back and more time outside in a screenless, vertical paradise.

Styles of Climbing Shoes


What Type of Climbing Will You Be Doing?

Are you trapped in the flatlands, limited only to gym climbing? Do you crave endless sandstone splitter cracks or steep limestone caves? How about techy granite faces or holdless slabs? No shoe is great at everything. An aggressive shoe designed for the steeps probably isn't going to very comfortable on a long trad romp. Nevertheless, if you can identify the types of climbing you do, there is probably a shoe out there that can fit your needs.

Trad and Crack Climbing


La Sportiva TC Pro climbing shoe
Traditional climbing can involve an enormous array of techniques, but when people refer to a "trad shoe," they usually mean less aggressive shoes that are designed for crack climbing. Typically, for crack climbs, you want a shoe that allows the toes to lay flat for added comfort when you're stuffing them inside a crack.

The ability to get your foot inside a particular crack depends on the profile of the toe. A larger profile toe, such as that found on the La Sportiva TC Pro or Butora Altura, usually includes additional materials to pad your feet and reduce the discomfort. This type of shoe is popular for moderate trad climbs and gaping off-width cracks, but getting a large shoe inside a small crack is not always possible. On thinner cracks many climbers prefer a smaller profile that lets them cram the maximum amount of their foot inside the crack. The Five Ten Moccasym, for example, has a thin rand and narrow profile which makes it a common choice for those climbing harder cracks that are less than hand-size.

The other dimension that effects trad shoe choice is the length of the route. You might be able to endure a bit of foot pain on your single-pitch project, but the same pain would be unbearable on a 1,200 foot ramble. Generally, shoes with a stiffer sole will improve your comfort when standing on edges and help prevent foot fatigue on longer days. Stiffer shoes, however, reduce sensitivity and can feel clunky before they're broken in. You can also improve comfort by sizing up, but keep in mind, that many shoes stretch significantly as they get worn-in. For this reason, many climbers wear a new pair of shoes when climbing near their limit, and a worn-in pair for long multi-pitch adventures.

Bouldering and Sport Climbing


La Sportiva Futura climbing shoe
As a good rule of thumb, the steeper the climbing gets, the more aggressive or downturned you want your shoe to be. Shoes like the La Sportiva Solution, La Sportiva Genius, Scarpa Instinct VS or Evolv Shaman are all shaped so the shoe "turns down" from the heel to the toe. When worn, these shoes cause your foot to arch, allowing you to direct more power through the toe.

Super steep climbing also frequently involves creative footwork like heel hooks, toe hooks, or gymnastic combinations of the two. Thus, many sport and bouldering specific shoes feature ergonomic heel cups and rubber across the top of the foot for added grip when toe hooking, such as those found on the Scarpa Chimera and Evolv Oracle, respectively.

Appropriate sizing for steep, hard climbing varies from shoe to shoe. To perform at a very high level, a shoe will be uncomfortable to wear for more than a pitch or two. Our recommendation is to size your shoes appropriately to stay psyched. If all you're focused on is pushing your grade, a tight-fitting, aggressively shaped shoe will work for you. If your comfort is critical to enjoying your experience while on the rock, we'd recommend you size your shoes accordingly, and look for a shoe with a flat shape. Shoes for the steepest styles of climbing are often on the soft side, allowing you to pull yourself into the wall with your toes. For vertical or less than vertical climbing, it's better to go with stiffer, more supportive shoe as you balance all of your weight on your big toe. Specialized shoes in either category tend to be on the upper end of the price range.

Gym Climbing and Beginner Shoes


La Sportiva Tarantula
There are several schools of thought regarding how to choose your first pair of climbing shoes. Our recommendation is to do your homework — and this buyer's guide is a great place to start! Think about what your local crags offer, or whether you'll primarily be climbing in a gym. This will help you look for a shoe that is appropriate for what you're planning to do. Often, new climbers get put off by uncomfortable shoes. This is unnecessary.

Our best advice is to try-on some different brands to get a sense for which fit your feet the best. It is also wise for new climbers to purchase inexpensive shoes because you can wear through rubber quickly while learning good footwork. The La Sportiva Tarantulace and Evolv Defy Black are great options. By the time you wear though a pair or two, your technique will have improved and you'll be ready to upgrade to a pricier, higher performance shoe.

Typically, inexpensive, entry-level shoes won't climb as well — but this is not a hard and fast rule. If you find the right shoe, forking out a little extra cash is worth it to have something that you can grow with, and that won't hold you back. Irrespective of the price, the shoe needs to be comfortable. Not grandma's slippers comfortable, but something you can easily tolerate wearing for a while.

For gym climbing, get whatever suits your climbing ambitions. We often size tight and aggressive for steep routes and bouldering and maintain a flatter, looser fit if you're new to climbing, cruising, or just getting some exercise.

Our feet took a real beating testing climbing shoes on hundreds of feet of crack.
Our feet took a real beating testing climbing shoes on hundreds of feet of crack.

Fit Considerations


Aggressive Shape


Downturned toes like the La Sportiva Genius or Evovl Shaman are everywhere these days. The more downturned a shoe, the more your toes bunch up in the front. Sizing downturned shoes loosely will mean that you have extra material on top of your foot where your arched toes should be. When you climb in an oversized shoe, that excess material can bunch up, both getting in the way and making the shoe less comfortable. If you're in the market for down-turned shoes, remember to keep them snug. That doesn't mean they have to hurt, but they should be tight enough to perform for you.

Tightness


There is a lot of subjective information out there regarding how you should size your shoes. For sport climbing and bouldering, there is a pretty strong correlation between the difficulty of the climb and your shoe size: as the number grade of the climb increases, the number of your shoe size decreases. Shoes like the Scarpa Instinct, Butora Acro and La Sportiva Genius have a particularly tight feel and perform better because of that snug fit. However, there is a limit to an increase in tightness increasing performance. If your feet hurt so much that you can't climb, you've gone too far. Tight shoes also work for sport climbs and bouldering because you tend not to be on the rock for very long.

On multi-pitch climbs, whether sport or trad, you'll want to size your shoes more loosely. Especially for trad climbing, having a flatter-toed shoe can benefit you when climbing cracks. You can compensate for a slightly larger size by choosing a shoe with a stiffer sole. Even on longer multi-pitch sport climbs, a less aggressive shape (less downturned, lower asymmetry) will keep your feet from getting thrashed, with a relatively minimal drop in performance.

Again, doing some research will go a long way for you. Before you buy, decide what type of climbing you'll mostly be doing with the shoe, try on several and size them accordingly. A few things to consider: unlined shoes stretch more over the lifetime of the shoe, and can lose performance. Half sizes matter, particularly in climbing shoes. A slightly larger shoe won't impact your climbing very much at all and can make a world of difference regarding comfort.

A low volume shoe like the Vapor V on the left generally performs better in cracks. If crack climbing isn't your thing and your foot is on the narrow side  the Tarifa (right) provides a glove-like fit.
A low volume shoe like the Vapor V on the left generally performs better in cracks. If crack climbing isn't your thing and your foot is on the narrow side, the Tarifa (right) provides a glove-like fit.

Brand and Sizing


Sizing is the biggest crux when purchasing climbing shoes, especially if shopping online. If you can, go out and try on various brands and sizes before you buy. Evolv, FiveTen, and Butora seem to run small, now making it possible to size your rock shoes the same as your street shoes. La Sportiva and Scarpa are very consistent but require a little testing to learn what their sizing means. For us, it means we buy these European brands in a size that is 1 to 1.5 sizes lower than our ordinary street shoes. We had to size the long, narrow Tenaya shoes two full sizes down from our streets shoe size before our toes were snug against the front of the shoe.

Stretch


The shoe that you take out of the box the first day you climb with it will not be the same after wearing it for a while. All shoes stretch, some more than others, so it is important to size your shoes to account for how they will feel after they wear in.

Leather shoes, like the La Sportiva Skwama or La Sportiva TC Pro, stretch more than synthetic shoes, so take that into account when making a purchase. An important caveat, however, is that leather shoes with a lining may stretch very little, instead molding themselves to your feet to a limited degree. How much should you size down when buying unlined leather shoes to account for stretch? That depends a lot on the brand and model, and there will be a little trial and error here. In general, to get the right fit from your unlined leather shoe, size them a little tighter, and expect them to be mildly uncomfortable, with the discomfort decreasing as they wear in. The result should produce a comfortable shoe. Unlined slippers like the Five Ten Moccasyms can stretch up to a size and a half, while velcro and lace-up models are usually closer to a single full size. Synthetic shoes don't stretch out much at all, so make sure they are fairly true to size when you buy.

Gathering a little information on the shoe you are going to buy will help you make this decision. What does the manufacturer say about the shoe? What materials were used to construct the shoe? What is the design of the shoe? These are all proper questions to ask and will help guarantee you stay stoked with your decision.

The author "working" late into the evening. Stiffer shoes like the Butora Acro shown here are fantastic for vertical edging.
The author "working" late into the evening. Stiffer shoes like the Butora Acro shown here are fantastic for vertical edging.

Rubber Stickiness


Arguments over rubber can stratify opinions more than any other aspect of climbing. As a general rule, stickier rule is usually softer but less durable, while slicker rubber is harder but will last longer. Really soft rubber that is ultra-sticky will wear out fast. Harder rubber holds an edge longer but doesn't function as well when you paste your foot on the rock. Consequently, we tend to use different rubber types for various applications. Softer rubber for high-performance sport and bouldering shoes will typically work better for everything other than steep edges. When just starting out as a climber, or if you're looking for an all-day shoe, harder, more durable rubber will work better.

Laces, Velcro, and Slipper


There are three main types of tightening system: Velcro straps, lace-ups, and closure-less slippers. Lace-up shoes are the most adjustable, and typically provide the most uniform, customizable fit for your rock shoes. All those strings, however, make them a little slower to put on and take off. Because of this, we tend to choose lace-ups as all-around/multi-pitch shoes, where we put them on at the start of the climb and take them off at the end. Velcro shoes go on and off easier, and some tighten almost as well as lace-ups. For sport, bouldering, or gym climbing, Velcro shoes are exceptional because of the number of transitions between street shoes and rock shoes you will make in a day. They work well on multi-pitch days too, if you want to pop the Velcro for a little relief at the belay. Slippers are usually the most sensitive and comfortable shoes out there; they are normally unlined, which means they stretch out more. This makes them more comfortable but can also decreases their performance on small edges. They are very easy to take off and make great gym or bouldering shoes.

Laces can wear out, get torn up by cracks, and get turned into rappel anchors (don't do that). Just be ready to replace them when they start to look worked. Velcro will get mucked up if you leave it open when you're storing the shoes. Keeping the Velcro closed when you're not using your shoes will also help maintain the shape of the shoe longer.


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